Bryant's fire burning bright

Antonio Bryant wants the football. He wants it bad. And he's going to get it this season with the 49ers. But that's not all Bryant wants. The fifth-year veteran wants to be a winner, wants to lift his name up there among the league's elite wide receivers, wants to shed a reputation as a confrontational kind of character who already is working on his second fresh start with his third NFL team.

But most of all, Bryant wants to compete, to stoke the inner fires of desire that push him to the highest level of excellence on the gridiron. And that goes hand it hand with all the other things Bryant wants now that he has firmly established himself as the 49ers' No. 1 receiver and top offensive weapon in his first summer with the team.

"I've played with some great guys in this league, and in terms of competitiveness day in and day out, Antonio takes every day as a personal challenge," said 49ers quarterback Trent Dilfer, a 13th-year veteran who threw to Bryant last year when both were playing for the Cleveland Browns. "He loves to compete. He loves the challenge. AB wants go out 1-on-1 and he just wants to humiliate the guy across the ball from him."

That competitiveness has been on daily display this summer as Bryant dominates San Francisco defensive backs in training camp sessions to quickly assert himself as the favorite target and go-to guy for second-year quarterback Alex Smith.

That carried right over into Friday's preseason opener against the Chicago Bears, when Bryant reeled in five receptions from Smith in the game's first 20 minutes before heading to the bench with the other starters after helping the 49ers build a 17-0 lead. The Smith-to-Bryant collaboration evident in San Francisco's 28-14 victory is a sure sign of things to come this year as the 49ers attempt to dramatically improve the NFL's worst passing offense of 2005.

Bryant is a central figure in those plans, and he not only has performed like San Francisco's best receiver this summer, but he often looked like the very best player on the field. With the 2006 season now less than a month away, the 49ers already are getting great bang for their buck after signing Bryant to a four-year, $14 million free-agent deal during the offseason.

With his field-stretching speed, downfield blocking, ability to get open consistently and determination to catch every pass within his sight, Bryant has offered the 49ers a considerable upgrade over the man he replaced as San Francisco's top wideout, Brandon Lloyd, the team's leading receiver last year.

In speaking of Bryant's sheer competitiveness, which has enlivened San Francisco practices throughout training camp, 49ers coach Mike Nolan made some cryptic references toward Bryant's predecessor while also touching on the respect Bryant demands and already is earning from his new teammates as he leads by example.

"Outside of making plays, that would be the top thing for me, that he's a competitive guy," Nolan said. "There are not a lot of them at receiver. There's a lot of guys that catch a lot of balls, look really sweet, look acrobatic and all that stuff, but they don't compete. When it gets hot, you can't find them. Antonio is a guy that when it gets hot, that's when he really wants to get in there and go. The other guys see that. They respect him. They want to see him out there on game day."

Bryant's competitiveness hasn't always brought him that kind of praise.

Leaving the University of Pittsburgh after his junior season as the school's all-time leading receiver, Bryant was selected in the second round of the 2002 draft by the Dallas Cowboys. That began a tumultuous stay in Dallas that lasted 38 games and ended abruptly when he was shipped to Cleveland before the NFL's trading deadline five games into the 2004 season.

Bryant's attitude and maturity became issues in Dallas, where he clashed with coach Bill Parcells and hastened his exit by tossing a sweaty jersey that struck Parcells in the face. Bryant subsequently was ordered to take anger-management classes, and two months later he was shipped to Cleveland.

Looking back on that well-publicized incident, Bryant said he felt he was misunderstood, but he learned important lessons before putting it all behind him.

"That was just a man not understanding another man," Bryant said. "(Parcells)'s an older man. I respect him for that. But there was a lack of respect for me in that I'm a man, even if not by age, just by circumstance.

"Everybody comes up different. Everybody is exposed to different things. Some people are graduated due to their environment. Some people are graduated due to their situation. I've got five siblings. I'm the oldest of all of them. I'm looked up to. Everything I do is to set an example. I was raised that, if you know something's wrong, if you can't be a man to stand up for what you believe in, what are you living for? What is your purpose? I feel that if you become a player, that doesn't make you any less of a person. I'm a man before I'm a football player. So just respect me in regards to me being a man first. That's how I look at life."

Bryant was a changed man by his first full season in Cleveland last year, and it showed on the field, where he produced career-high totals of 69 receptions for 1,009 yards for an offense that ranked 26th in the NFL and had few other weapons.

"It should have been 90 (receptions)," Dilfer said. "We had games where there were corners that all day long couldn't cover him. I mean, there was no route they could have covered him on, and we didn't have the ability in our system to isolate him on those people snap in and snap out. I really feel bad for AB because I can think of games where they had no chance of covering him on any route, and yet we working something else."

The 49ers have seen a lot of the same from Bryant this summer, but they won't be working something else when the real games begin in September. They'll be working the ball to Bryant, just as they've been doing since camp began at the end of July.

. And it won't just be a lot of the short stuff like San Francisco ran last year. The 49ers are airing it out in new coordinator Norv Turner's vertical offense, giving Bryant an opportunity to display his quality speed, precise route-running and sure hands like he did on consecutive practice days earlier this month.

Bryant caught up with a Smith pass that traveled 65 yards in the air to make a spectacular diving grab, then reeled in a 50-yard touchdown bomb from Smith later in the same afternoon. The next day, in the team's first summer scrimmage, Bryant flew past cornerback Mike Rumph to turn a long throw from Smith into a 60-yard touchdown reception.

"The nice thing about Antonio is he's great at communicating," Smith said. "He comes back and tells you what he sees, tells you what he's thinking, how they're playing him, the different looks he's getting. And the more and more we communicate, we get on the same page."

That might be something of a change from his younger NFL days, but Bryant realizes now at age 25 that the game isn't just about talent and focused intensity. Sometimes it's also about communicating while your competing. And that certain mellowing quality that's now meshing with Bryant's aggressive confidence and passion is helping him evolve into the complete package with the 49ers.

"You'd have to know how to talk to AB on the field," Dilfer said. "But AB is a great teammate and I can't say enough good things about him. Now he's in a system that will really accentuate his abilities and get him isolated and mismatches and get him a lot of opportunities to be involved in the game. The more he's involved in the game, the better he is."

And the more Bryant is involved, the more he'll be getting the football, which promises to work out well for both him and the 49ers.

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